Ulster Logo
Link to facebook  Link to INCOREinfo on twitter  Link to INCORE rss feed    Linkedin link Linkedin link

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Citizens Without Rights: Aborigines and Australian Citizens
John Chesterman & Brian Galligan,

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
277pp. Index. Bibl. 45.00; ISBN 0-521-59230-5. 15.95; ISBN 0-521-59751 X.

Aborigines did not gain full Australian citizenship until the 1960s. In 1962 legislation was passed which allowed all adult Aborigines to vote, and in 1967 there was an amendment to the 1901 Constitution as a result of which the Australian federal government was enabled to pass laws with respect to Aborigines. The 1962 change is self-explanatory, while the 1967 one can be best explained as giving the Canberra government the power to intervene on behalf of Aborigines against state governments in Western Australia and Queensland where the treatment of Aborigines was most overtly racist. It is popularly believed that these two legislative changes gave Aborigines citizenship rights which the founding constitution had withheld from them.

Chesterman and Galligan argue that it was not the 1901 Constitution which had excluded Aborigines. This was a document which simply continued the well-established Australian colonial precedent of denying Aborigines the rights and privileges possessed by other British subjects in the sub-continent. That is, in the colonial period various local governments all had similar legislation to ensure that Aborigines were subject to repressive laws and regulations. These denied them basic rights such as freedom of movement, free bargaining for employment, and free choice of a marriage partner. These governments also directly repressed Aborigines by making them subject to special curfews and to discipline for insubordination. In other words, the 1901 Constitution was a non-event in the history of Aboriginal citizenship because the exclusion of indigenous people from Australian public life was a well-established custom which the constitution avoided addressing. All the Australian colonies (except for Tasmania which claimed to have no Aborigines) possessed administrative apparatus which rigidly controlled Aborigines in segregated facilities. Chesterman and Galligan argue that the only passages in the federal constitution which refer to Aborigine left their governance and political rights totally in the hands of the former colonies - called states from 1901. After federation the states enforced bureaucratic governance upon Aborigines in an increasing rigid process which reached its high point during the 1930s. Even after the 1930s Aborigines were controlled. For example, in Western Australia the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act, 1944, allowed some Aborigines to possess citizenship, but this status would be lost if the Aboriginal citizen contracted a disease such as leprosy or syphilis. The Aborigine citizen was also required to carry his certificate of citizenship with a photograph of the holder attached.

This limited form of citizenship existed until the federal changes in the 1960s, and is the reason why Chesterman and Galligan emphasize that Aborigines were treated as citizens with no rights.

However, this argument leads to the most problematic feature of this book. The volume is mis-titled. The book is primarily a legal and administrative history of official Australian treatment of Aborigines. In fact, it is an excellent survey of this subject which uses a wide range of primary and secondary sources. However, it claims to be more. Its title promises to examine Citizens Without Rights but neither rights or citizenship theory is seriously analysed. The work contains no historical or contemporary analysis of what citizenship might have meant, or might mean, to either nineteenth- or twentieth-century white Australians. Instead, it relies upon brief mentions of Aristotle and Rousseau which stress that a citizen is someone who both rules and is ruled. While these references are useful in emphasising that modern democratic citizenship involves equality and participation, they do little to help the reader weigh the evidence which Chesterman and Galligan - with the occasional assistance of Tom Clarke - have compiled. To explain: late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Australian citizenship was rather like what George Armstrong Kelly explained as state membership where the group found its unity in submission to law. ("Who needs a theory of citizenship?" Theorizing Citizenship, ed. Ronald Beiner, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 79-104). From this historical perspective a citizen was someone who was subject to the laws of a state. This notion of citizenship does not entail that citizens were equal or that they participated. From this formal perspective, Aborigines were citizens who were ruled by various Australian colonial or state governments.

Aborigines received special benefits to which ordinary Australian citizens were not entitled, but were very rarely entitled to vote, nor to receive general benefits such as the old age pensions and maternity allowances which were the citizenship rights claimed by white Australians after World War I. The idea that citizenship was entitlement marks an important change in Australian citizenship, and had a profound effect upon the treatment of Aborigines. As Chesterman and Galligan repeatedly and correctly observe, Aborigines on reserves and in special camps were given food, shelter and medical care, but were denied the benefits white Australians received as their due. This feature about Australian citizenship has nothing to do with the notion, which the authors draw from Aristotle and Rousseau, that a citizen is someone who participates in making laws and in governing. It was equal entitlement, rather than participation, which became the criterion for defining citizenship. This kind of citizenship was even more exclusionary than the older colonial view of citizenship in which equality would have meant equality under the law. Of course, in practice, Aborigines were not treated equally under either kind of citizenship, but, in theory, the older view was less exclusive, because white Australian and Aborigines were equally under the law.

The difficulty in adopting a participatory notion of citizenship when discussing Australian treatment of Aborigines is that it had no bearing on the treatment of Aborigines in the past. The politicians and officials whose institutional activities Chesterman and Galligan condemn were supported by the majority of the Australian democratic voters whom they represented. Participation worked to repress Aborigines. This is illustrated by an example given by Chesterman and Galligan in which Aboriginal children received a less favourable education because "white parents often protested successfully if they discovered that their children were being educated with Aboriginal children". Demands for racial exclusion were popular, while pressure for reform was imposed upon Australia by unrepresentative figures such as church leaders or academics. Even more telling is the fact that effective pressure for the better treatment of Aborigines after World War I was external, and came from the British Imperial government. This suggests that before the 1967 referendum, which favoured constitutional reform on the subject, higher amounts of democratic participation in Australia would have been repressive. Like participation, equality is an awkward theoretical tool for Chesterman and Galligan. They are well aware that, on occasion, equality has been used by the white majority that was hostile to the rights of the indigenous minority. Further, they view the present situation of equal citizenship for Aborigines as a boon which might have aided them in the early twentieth century, but which is now used against them in struggles over land rights and self-determination. In conclusion, neither participation nor equality provides Chesterman and Galligan with a set of citizenship values that would protect indigenous people in a democracy. Their views are similar to those of liberal democrats everywhere, but something more specific is needed if the interests of Australian, or of other, indigenous peoples are to be included in the modern state.

Mark Francis,
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Disclaimer: © INCORE 2010 Last Updated on Monday, 10-Aug-2015 12:20
contact usgoto the search page
go to the top of this page